ONE hundred years ago, the first Olympic medals were awarded for cultural achievement. In the summer of 1912 in Stockholm, exponents of architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture were celebrated alongside the runners and the jumpers. The tradition continued for decades, with a final hurrah at the London Games of 1948, when the medallists’ work was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert museum. Since then, the awarding of medals to artists has been given up, replaced by cultural exhibitions held alongside the Games, like this year’s Cultural Olympiad.
The Olympic medals for art are a little-known chapter of the event’s history. Cast out because of a conviction that no artist could compete and remain an amateur, they did not return even after professional athletes were accepted as competitors. Struck from the official record, Britain’s 1948 silver for sculpture and gold for painting no longer count towards our all-time Olympic medal total. As a result, these awards can seem a minor curiosity, but they were in fact an integral part of the Olympic ideal and it is a true loss to the movement that the art competition never caught fire like its sporting sibling.
A dual competition for art and sport was always part of Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of the Olympics. Although he didn’t manage to establish it as part of the first modern Olympics in 1896, he was passionate about its inclusion, saying “there is only one difference between our Olympiads and plain sporting championships, and it is precisely the contests of art as they existed in the Olympiads of Ancient Greece, where sport exhibitions walked in equality with artistic exhibitions.” The mix was central at the British birthplace of the modern Games at Much Wenlock in Shropshire, where William Penny Brookes founded the Olympian Class, later the Wenlock Olympian Games, in 1850, to award annual prizes not just “for skill in athletic exercise” but also for “proficiency in intellectual and industrial attainment”.
De Coubertin and Brookes wanted to celebrate the human mind and body at full stretch, and their power when integrated together. Inspired by ancient Greece, the Renaissance ideal of the Universal Man and the liberal education tradition, this Olympics of brain as well as brawn was just one part of a larger “physical culture” movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Like the artists’ medals, the very idea of physical culture has slipped from our collective memory.
Our amnesia is a sign of a deeper forgetfulness. Human excellence, at work or at play, is a product of intellect and physical skill. At the high points of our civilisation, we have celebrated not just one side of our nature but both, together. Today, only the quirky sport of chessboxing appears to keep the combination alive. As we watch the athletes strive this summer, we should recall the lines that William Shakespeare gave Prince Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man… in action how like an angel; in apprehension how like a god.” Let’s enjoy the angelic action, but we shouldn’t neglect our other faculties in the process.